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10 Questions on Icon Design
…And 10 Answers from the Microsoft Design Team

Every chance I get, I add to my icon collection. It's like a hobby of mine- well, more like an obsession. Many wonder what the significance of the icon really is, what makes them such an integral part of the user experience. It is a mystery to them why Apple and Microsoft spend so much trying to figure out how effective their icons are.

Here are some answers, straight from the Microsoft Design Team, about the ten most common questions concerning icons.

Q1. How do you define an icon? We all see icons every day, but what do they really represent to end users?

Put simply, icons symbolize the action a user is about to take.

Small pictures or objects, icons are graphical symbols for files, commands (actions), and applications. With them, the end user can recognize an intended action faster and thereby perform it more quickly.

Q2. How do you decide which icons to use?

Windows 7 was designed with set uses for the various icons created. It's the concept we're considering, how we can best make a picture stand in for words.

Therefore, we want to be as specific as possible. We create custom icons for most applications, so we have thousands of them. When we want new icons, we meet with PMs. Sometimes, we end up using something we already have, but other times we just have to build from the bottom up. The bottom line is that the icon must clearly represent the concept it stands for.

Q3. Does it seem that the icon design industry is paying any attention to Microsoft's recently published guidelines?

It all depends. We don't really slave to meet Microsoft guidelines to a T, but when it's conducive to our goals we do.

Here's what Frank had to say:

It seems you're talking about the icon design industry outside Microsoft, in which case I'd say they listen sometimes and other times not, although it's not like our guidelines are extremely clear. Sometimes, there is more politics guiding the icon design industry than actual concern about communication. One of the biggest problems they have is cultural symbols. Marketable icons have to be politically correct and not offend anyone. Others feel no pressing need to update with each new version of Windows. Instead, they'll use, say XP icons for Vista operating systems. Even worse is when they scale an icon up or down to cut back on work instead of designing the icon in different sizes. In the end, you reduce quality and effectiveness that way. Whether icon designers are striving to keep to Microsoft guidelines all depends on what kind of pressures are being put on them and how inconvenient it would be to cut out the alternative- shortcuts.

Q4. It looks to me like we're headed for a boom in icon design. Where do you think the market is going, and do you think XAML formats will become widely accepted?

Actually, we're definitely in a good place technologically for a boom in icon design, but I think the icon design fetish will eventually wane as the UI becomes more self-sufficient.

The main advance in icon design can be seen in the more detailed icons, with resolutions as high as 512x512 pixels in the UI. In the future, I foresee dynamic icons, ones that will change with the application's state. Basically, icon graphics will improve at about the same rate as OS graphics systems. As far as XAML, there are some possibilities there. Expression Blend will transport a XAML icon from illustrator right into a code, but you can also define brushes in Blend based on an icon and then use it to do the icon (bitmap icons work well with this technique). The latter technique could definitely be improved, though. With XAML, I think we can all look forward to some creative WPF applications. Really, it's too early to project anything concrete, but I generally believe that, as WPF advances, XAML will come toward the forefront.

Q5. I have thousands of icons in all styles. Is collecting all types of icons something common among icon designers at Microsoft, too?

I don't know about the others, but I don't collect them. The fact that there are as many as you mentioned above on our server is enough. Also, we stick to Vista guidelines when we make icons, so there really isn't that much diversity in style. J

As one of the "others," I have to confess that I am zealous about collecting icons. I don't have any kind of thousands- I've collected TENS of thousands over the years. One of my favorite things to do is customize my desktop. I obviously never run out of options.

Q6. Why is it that the glass effect is so important in OSX and Windows Vista design styles, and do you have any conjectures about future trends?

The purpose of the UI, and therefore the icons, is to draw the user in. The new styles are just that- new- so they have a certain novelty to them. Also, they look more artistic than past icons, particularly with the glass effect. There's no foolproof method of predicting future trends, but it seems that we're leaning towards a combo of Vista and MSN styles, with less emphasis on icons and more on UI.

Some other notes on glass and future trends: I actually think there's just a little too much glitz in the glass right now, and it will probably see some toning down in the future. Transparency is also an area where designers need to tread carefully, as you want to achieve the right balance. I actually know some things I'm not telling, but I'll let you figure them out with Microsoft's next release.

Q7. What's the worst thing a designer can do when choosing the icons for his/her application?

Use icons in the wrong way, definitely. By wrong, I mean not right, where right is defined as easy to understand and not confusable with some other operation. IE, Windows, and Windows Live all use the same library so that their functions become familiar to the user, which means better communication. In the absence of good icon communication, you mess up your whole UI by having your users thinking they're doing one thing when they're actually doing another. Always remember that your icon is presumably being marketed to multiple cultures. Therefore, when you come up with ideas, especially metaphorical ones, you need to make sure they're universal and easy to understand. The key to a good UI is good communication.

After incorrectly used icons, the worst mistake would be scaling up a small icon. It will ruin the quality and detract from the user experience. Q8. Since a lot of software vendors mandate themes, what would your advice to icon designers be about creating the icons for the theme?

It depends on the style you're designing with. In the case of Vista style, you need to work closely with your library owner in order to keep tabs on what's already been built and what visual representations would best blend with the Vista style.

When you're talking about other styles besides MSFT, know your audience. That may sound simple in theory, but it's sometimes more difficult in practice. In the case where your users are not using Vista, you shouldn't be publishing applications with all the aero stuff in them. You need to be able to visualize the most likely settings where your application will be utilized in terms of platform and the type of device (like a large projection screen versus a cell), along with the environment (lighting and technology). When Microsoft designers start a new project, they generally consider it to be for home and office use, but there's no telling what kind of uses your program will be put to. Think smart by thinking ahead.

Q9. Different states of an application usually have different icons, but some (like Audim on OSX) are now designing their icons with animation. How can that be kept in check?

It all depends on situation. There are very few cases where animated icons really add to the UI, and they are significantly more expensive to produce as opposed to just making two or three static icons. The cost will probably dissuade a major trend in that fashion, and it is always something that should be brought up when you get requests for animated icons.

Also, icons actually don't typically have even two static states, but this is a useful feature. It can more effectively give the user feedback about status changes where animation would tend to go overboard. Animation has its place in cases like where you're synching files, but just doing it for its own sake will eventually be phased out all together.

Q10. Why not design icons that are compatible with all platforms and electronic devices?

Having universal file types would be very helpful to icon designers, and just about anyone else, but that kind of collaboration may never exist considering the parameters existent on the web right now, regardless of what OS you're running.

There's really too much commercial competition for universal icon formats to ever come to fruition. After all, you have to remember that developing technology is a business, and people will only concede to so much commercial cooperation. This can be observed across the board in HD DVD vs. Blue Ray, XPS vs. PDF, DNG vs. RAW, and a number of others. Plus, if you changed the formatting all at once, a number of programs would have to be remade for compatibility. It's too bad we can't agree on anything, but I don't think there will be any universal anything in technology for a long time yet because of all the competition and the inconvenience of changing formats.


The icon design market is just heating up with the advances in RIA and technology in general. Icon designers will be working alongside of UI designers, who ideally would have a background in icon designing themselves. Those who are equipped to do both can accomplish a whole lot more. XAML is definitely something up and coming in the icon design world. There will also be steps taken to simplify the process of shuffling icons between the various project collaborators, plus different icon sizes may soon be eliminated.

There's really a lot more that can be done with the web and UI, and Microsoft knows it has people with enough skill and focus to get the job done. In the future, these will revolutionize the user experience in some awesome ways.



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